Six abandoned underground cities, subways and tunnel networks to visit

Step down below and back in time, from ancient homes to railway stations via salt mines lit by chandeliers

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If you’re jetting off on holiday this summer, or planning a weekend break later in the year, it’s time to change up your vacation itinerary by stepping off the pavement and going underground.

Around the world, many towns and cities are built on top of vast networks of tunnels, aqueducts, medieval dwellings and mines which, although abandoned long ago, allow visitors to step back in time and into history.

From Krakow to New York, here are six places to have underground adventures in.

Wieliczka salt mine, Krakow, Poland

The cathedral carved out of the rock salt in Wieliczka salt mine, Poland. Getty Images

With chandeliers, sculptures, carved archways and stone statues standing sentient by doorways, the Wieliczka salt mine resembles an eccentric billionaire’s bunker over a disused table salt manufacturing plant.

Sitting just shy of 10 miles outside of Krakow, visitors can descend 378 steps down below the town of Wieliczka and enter a world made up of more than over 185 miles of galleries and 3,000 chambers spread over nine floors — the first three of which are open to the public.

Visitors can learn about the history of the mine, which opened in the 13th century and stopped production in 2007, and traverse the complex underground labyrinth. Lord of the Rings fans can step into a world similar to the dwarf mines of Moria.

Options include the Miners’ Tour and Pilgrims’ Tour.

City Hall subway station, New York, US

If you’re planning a trip to the Big Apple, be sure to head down into the belly of the city to experience old New York.

Opening in 1904, the New York City subway system proved hugely popular, especially the first station built beneath City Hall. However, the station fell victim to modern longer cars and wider carriages and the last train pulled into the station on December 31, 1945.

Visitors can book limited spots on tours to the station, which, with its vaulted ceilings, stained glass skylights and tiled archways, remains a stuck-in-time paean to the ‘City Beautiful’ movement to which its Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino belonged.

Pilsen Historical Underground, Pilsen, Czech Republic

About an hour’s drive west of Prague, the city of Pilsen is home to a fascinating network of tunnels for visitors to explore.

Tunnelling beneath the city began in the 13th century when townsfolk began creating cellars up to three stories deep beneath their homes, connecting them via a network of tunnels.

Digging continued until the 19th century to create one of the longest tunnel networks in Central Europe, over 12 miles of interconnected passageways.

Although the tunnels are no longer used for their original purposes of transporting water and sewage, archaeologists have found relics dating back to the Middle Ages within the walls.

Visitors can explore lengths of the tunnels, many areas of which have been restored with replicas of the water wheels and other industries that used to exist beneath the city.

Derinkuyu underground city, Nevsehir Province, Turkey

Large enough to accommodate more than 20,000 people, along with livestock and food stores, the scale of Derinkuyu underground city, one of several throughout the historical region of Cappadocian, is breathtaking.

Around half the city is open to visitors, who descend down vertical staircases to take in the homes, cellars, school rooms, stables and chapels within.

The caves date back to the 7th and centuries BCE, which were expanded and completed during the Byzantine era, between the 5th and 10th centuries AD.

Throughout the years, they have been used by groups fleeing religious persecution and fleeing war, as the large stone doors could seal off each floor.

The tunnel complex was rediscovered in 1963 when a local resident found a room behind a wall in his home and further digging lead to the city.

Tunnels of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada

Beneath the fourth largest city in Saskatchewan, an interconnecting maze of tunnels developed into an underground city with a nefarious past, having hid families and rumouredly frequented by Al Capone.

Work is thought to have begun on the tunnels in 1908 by Chinese workers facing abuse by locals who feared the new immigrants were taking their jobs. Ottawa had also imposed a "head tax" on Chinese immigrants.

Workers carved out a city beneath Moose Jaw to hide in — a place officials dismissed as an urban legend and refused to admit it existed for the next 75 years.

Today, people can visit the tunnels and see what life was like for early immigrant settlers.

They can also experience life as a bootlegger during prohibition in the 1920s, as the tunnels’ proximity to the US made it the perfect spot to funnel drink from Canada — with US gangster Capone apparently visiting on numerous occasions.

Edinburgh Vaults, Edinburgh, UK

Also known as the South Bridge Vaults, the series of chambers beneath the Scottish capital are open for visitors to experience life in the 18th century beneath the cobbled streets.

Finished in 1788, the vaults were home to taverns and workshops owned and operated by tradesmen. They also acted as a place for merchants to store their goods.

Over the centuries, the vaults became home to families as well as illegal gambling rings. Rumours persist that the infamous Scottish graverobbers William Burke and William Hare considered the vaults a fertile hunting ground for their nefarious work.

By the late 1800s, the vaults were empty. They were rediscovered in the 1980s when Scottish rugby international Norrie Rowan helped Romanian rugby player Cristian Raducanu seek political asylum weeks before the Romanian Revolution of 1989, by hiding him in the tunnels.

Updated: July 13, 2022, 7:14 AM